Redefining Social BusinessLast time in the first article of this mini-series I argued that despite all the media attention, the market growth, the huge investment by companies like Microsoft, and the almost hysterical claims by some "experts," there’s a problem with "social" -- there’s no clear definition, no one can clearly articulate how it works and there’s little reliable evidence that it actually delivers any business value. In this article I am going to address the first of these issues and offer a (new) definition for "social."

Web 2.0 to Enterprise 2.0

From the outset the ethos at the heart of this phenomenon has been the use of technology to facilitate interaction between people, and a precise definition has been elusive. In 1999 an article in the magazine Print coined the phrase, "Web 2.0," and predicted that,

…The Web, as we know it now is a fleeting thing. Web 1.0. …Today’s Web is essentially a prototype -- a proof of concept…. The first glimmerings of Web 2.0 are beginning to appear… The Web will not be understood as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens” (DiNucci, 1999)

The term Web 2.0 was popularized by a conference of the same name which was organized by Tim O’Reilly and Web pioneer Dale Dougherty in 2004 at which prominent thinkers of the web community were invited to discuss interactive web applications (MacNamara, 2009). Reflecting on that conference in a 2005 web article Tim O’Reilly notes,

There’s still a huge amount of disagreement about just what Web 2.0 means, with some people decrying it as a meaningless marketing buzzword, and others accepting it as the new conventional wisdom … Like many important concepts, Web 2.0 doesn't have a hard boundary” (O'Reilly, 2005)

The earliest significant academic reference to the term "Web 2.0" found in a search of the EBSCO Business Source Complete database which contains over 1600 full text peer reviewed journals is Andrew McAfee’s 2006 article, "Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.” That paper discusses the use of Web 2.0 technologies by knowledge workers within organizations, a phenomenon which he calls, “Enterprise 2.0.”

McAfee proposes a framework to define the components of Enterprise 2.0 technologies which he refers to using the acronym SLATES. Table 1 summarizes the SLATES framework.

Table 1: The SLATES framework describing the characteristics of Web 2.0 technologies


McAfee defines "Web 2.0" as a set of technologies with certain characteristics, and he uses "Enterprise 2.0" to refer to the use of those technologies by knowledge workers within organizations. In both cases the central theme of the concept is technology. Since McAfee’s paper, scholars have used a number of synonyms for "Web 2.0" and "Enterprise 2.0." von Krogh (2012) writes,

Social software, also known as Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0, is software that supports group interaction towards establishing communities and creating and exchanging content”

Haefliger et al. (2011) agrees and writes,

… Social software, frequently annotated with Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0”

Quy and Shipilov (2012) refer to, “Social media (a.k.a. Enterprise 2.0) tools,” but according to Merchant (2013), the term "Social media," was originally coined to describe the influence of bloggers in shaping product adoption in contrast to the influence of traditional mass media. "Social Media" refers to the use of publically available Web 2.0 tools in a marketing context and so is subtly different from "Enterprise 2.0," which as we have seen refers to the use of proprietary Web 2.0 platforms by knowledge workers within an organization. The same underlying technologies but different tools and a different use case.

More than Technology

Although McAfee defines Enterprise 2.0 in terms of technology, he highlights associated issues relating to leadership, culture, power and organization structure. He notes that the adoption and use of the technologies by knowledge workers within an organization is not automatic and that it depends greatly on decisions and actions made by managers and he highlights four specific areas for consideration.

First, the organization must have a receptive culture, one which provides fertile ground to cultivate new collaboration practices. Second, there must be a common platform instead of many mutually inaccessible walled gardens. Third, an informal roll out which focuses on encouraging a few groups and individuals to start creating content with the hope that this would be compelling enough to draw people in. Fourth, managers must be seen to support the use of the tools and lead by example.

McAfee also considers two potential challenges for Enterprise 2.0. First, most people who use the internet aren't bloggers, wikipedians or taggers, and they don’t help produce the platform, they just use it. He poses the question, will the situation be different on company intranets?

Second, people may use Enterprise 2.0 technologies exactly as intended but this may produce unintended outcomes. McAfee notes that Enterprise 2.0 technologies reduce management’s ability to exert unilateral control and that they will be used by knowledge workers to express some level of negativity. He asks if managers will be able to resist the temptation to silence dissent? And what will happen if the content on the platform is uncomfortable for powerful people within the company?

The practitioner literature has evolved the Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 concepts along two lines. First the Enterprise 2.0 concept has been extended beyond a technologist's view to incorporate the management and organizational environment discussed by McAfee and now recognized as being fundamental to success. For example Bradley and McDonald (2011) comment that:

Organisational success with social media is fundamentally a leadership and management challenge, not a technology implementation.”

Second, the concepts of Enterprise 2.0 and Social media have begun to merge to combine the use of public social media for interaction between companies and their external stakeholders such as partners, suppliers and customers, and enterprise software for facilitating communication and collaboration between employees.

The term "Social business" has been championed by consultants from the marketing organization the Dachis Group and seen by some to be the evolution of social media with a focus social tools for marketing and customer relationship management (Merchant, 2013). Microsoft more commonly refers to, “Enterprise social,” which they claim is,

A new culture and set of modern social capabilities emerging in both the consumer and enterprise space.  Customers and talking and collaborating with each other, sharing information and decision making… Employees want to be able to find each other, talk and share information, and build new value together across traditional hierarchies and silos” (Microsoft, 2013)

If Social Business is the evolution of social media, then arguably Enterprise Social is the evolution of Enterprise 2.0.

Today the terms "Social business" and "Enterprise Social" are becoming increasingly synonymous and both fit the definition offered by analysts at the IDC,

IDC defines social business as organisations that apply emerging technologies like Web 2.0 accompanied by organisational, cultural and process changes. This is done to improve business performance in an increasingly connected global economic environment” (Traudt, 2011)

New Definition

Although the definition of social has evolved it seems as though the term is still fundamentally defined in terms of the application or use of technology, and surely that’s missing the point? I believe that social business should be about people and how they work together within and across organizational boundaries.  The clue is in the name! So I am offering my own definition of the term "social business."

A social business is an organization that explicitly and systematically harmonizes management approaches to people, culture, structure and technology with the aim of delivering benefits associated with knowledge worker productivity and innovation.

This is the phenomenon which I aim to explore over the next few months. It’s going to be fun.

Title image courtesy of Feng Yu (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in reading the first in this series? See Knowledge is Power: The Problem with 'Social'